The recent vote in the House of Representatives on H.Res. 246, supporting the so-called “Opposing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel” bill, provides us with some important lessons. At the very least, it demonstrates some important realities for the Palestinian rights movement.
H.Res. 246 is essentially a statement of principles by the House—in this case, a statement demonizing BDS as unacceptable and implying that it’s anti-Semitic. It is filled with misrepresentations and specific lies about what BDS is and isn’t. Unlike previous iterations of anti-BDS legislation in Congress, this resolution has no enforcement provisions and imposes no direct punishments on BDS supporters. Some in Congress took the position that it was “not as bad” as the earlier versions, which would have criminalized boycott activities against Israeli corporations and institutions. Technically, that’s true—but claiming that a congressional resolution condemning and demonizing nonviolent BDS supporters is somehow OK because it’s not “as bad” as an enforceable bill sets an outrageously low bar for determining statements of principle. It also leaves out the very real consequences of the resolution, such as giving city and state authorities eager to placate pro-Israel forces what amounts to a congressional seal of approval on any kind of anti-BDS legislation or regulation.
We lost this particular vote by an overwhelming margin (398 for, 17 against, with five voting present), but overall, the trajectory of US opinion on Israel-Palestine is changing direction, heading toward Palestinian rights and reducing the power of Israel’s uncritical supporters. This is definitely true in public and media discourse, and nowhere is that clearer than on college campuses—where the forces supporting Israeli occupation and apartheid are losing a generation of students to the forces in solidarity with Palestinians. More and more pop stars and other cultural figures are respecting the boycott of Israel—some quietly and others proudly.
The long-term power of the pro-Israel lobbies (Christian, Jewish, and others) is steadily diminishing. While they continue to gain influence within the Republican Party and among evangelical Christians, they are simultaneously losing significant influence among progressives in general, especially in the African-American community, among young people in general and particularly among young Jews, and more. But as their public influence wanes, they continue to exercise their long-standing sway within institutions of great power. Chief among these is the US Congress, where change is certainly afoot, though not nearly rapidly enough.
With the public wind in our sails, our movement, broadly defined—Palestine solidarity activists, supporters of Palestinian rights and equality for all, critics of Israeli policy—faces key questions of strategy: How can we pierce the Washington bubble, show members that conventional attitudes have changed, and bring Congress into greater congruence with changing public opinion?
Despite the lopsided vote on H.Res. 246, and despite the fact that some of the most progressive members ultimately voted for the anti-BDS resolution, it’s clear that many Palestinian-rights supporters were mobilized to work to persuade them not to, doing the always hard and crucial work of calling, writing, bird-dogging, and visiting members and their staffs to urge them to vote no. Of course, there could always be better and more of that work. So what’s the particular lesson here?
This vote demonstrates one of the areas in which our movement hasn’t invested enough strategic energy: going beyond our allies in explicitly left social movements, particularly those rooted in communities of color, to reach out to more components of the broad progressive movement.
In this moment of steady and, in recent years, qualitatively huge shifts toward the mainstreaming of Palestinian rights, our movement has a whole set of new organizing possibilities. We are looking at astonishing potential, in terms of reaching new constituencies—center-left, of course, but also centrist organizations and movements that were never before willing (in many cases never approached or asked) to support Palestinian rights—in entirely new ways. The longstanding problem of “PEP” (Progressive Except Palestine) hasn’t disappeared, but it is shrinking rapidly. And we need to take advantage of that reality.
So what does that have to do with the vote on H.Res. 246? Congress this year is a whole different ballgame. The presence—indeed, the leadership—of the Squad, the four young women of color serving their first term and turning Congress upside down by pushing big new ideas on the congressional agenda, is a major part of that. For most of them, that agenda, including the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college education, support for domestic workers, increasing the minimum wage, and more, also includes various versions of support for Palestinian rights.
And it isn’t only Ilhan, Rashida, Ayanna, and Alexandria. The four are operating in a political venue in which the Congressional Progressive Caucus is more active and indeed more consistently progressive than in many past years, with leaders strongly supportive of Palestinian rights. The Congressional Black Caucus as well as the Hispanic Caucus and the Asian Pacific American Caucus have all moved in more progressive directions. (In fact, of the 16 Democrats voting against the anti-BDS bill, all but one are members of one or more of the Progressive, Black, Hispanic, or Asian Pacific caucuses—about half of them members of two or three.) That gives us important new opportunities to pressure Congress to do the right thing on Palestinian rights, whether it’s support for Representative Betty McCollum’s heroic efforts to protect Palestinian children, or opposition to repeated efforts to undermine BDS.
What if, along with all the usual efforts to call members of Congress to vote against Israeli repression or for Palestinian rights, our broad movement also had new constituents to bring pressure to bear on the CPC and the CBC institutionally? Imagine the co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus getting calls not only from individual Palestinian-rights supporters from the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine, and from our left allies in the black freedom, immigrant rights, anti-Islamophobia, and other movements. What if those calls also came from groups like the National Organization for Women, or the Sierra Club, or others who are on the progressive side of things but who operate much closer to centers of power and who have never touched Palestine before? Imagine the chair of the Black Caucus getting calls not only from individual activists in her district but also from organizations urging the CBC to vote unanimously to support justice and equality and to oppose Israeli discrimination—and imagine if those organizations included not only Black Lives Matter and the Dream Defenders and Black for Palestine, but also the NAACP and Rainbow Push and beyond?
Of course, Congress is still a world away from our movement; it will be a long time, if ever, before we can expect members of Congress to use our exact language, to assert as their own demands everything we call for in a new, transformed US policy. Our movement has made and is continuing to make enormous gains in transforming public discourse and media coverage on Palestine. The plethora of new organizations supporting Palestinian rights in the Jewish community, the mobilizations on campuses and in churches across the country as well as national polls, bear that out. Indeed, the very escalation in attacks on BDS, not only in Congress but on campuses across the country, reflects the fear and desperation of pro-Israel forces who know they’re losing the long game.
We’ve always known that changing policy—and that usually means Congress—will come last. Changing the public and media discourse, even dramatically, doesn’t transform policy by itself, but it’s an absolutely necessary precondition for that transformation. So to maximize the pressure we can bring, as well as our influence, we need to take advantage of the shifts in this political moment and the new possibilities they provide. Realizing those possibilities means we must look further, and build broader ties among more broadly defined progressive forces than we ever thought possible.